A very nice lady for whom I hope to work, spotting a possible loophole in my otherwise watertight CV, asked me the other day: ‘So, what can you cook?’
Assiduous Followers of this, muh p’tit bogl, and those who make lists and suchlike, will dimly recall me Posting similarly a few months ago, a Post called ‘So, what do you do?’, in which I pointed out that it is not so difficult to do most things, provided one’s experience and interest has one fitted for them; and if not, that one might easily learn. My theme is, therefore, returning to that of the Impossibly Broad Question, that one has difficulty in answering succinctly, given the myriad possibilities.
Going for a job interview, you should always be prepared for the Impossibly Broad Question. Obviously, you will be asked ‘So, why do you want to work for Blenkinsop & Sons?’, and it is pretty well impossible to think of anything on the spur of the moment, other than (with a rising inflection, indicative of panic): ‘To feed my children?’ This lame answer is guaranteed to get you rejected out of hand. The smart course is to protest: ‘Oh, but I don’t!’ (with a falling, suggestive inflection – do not actually wink at the interviewer, whatever you do), and then go on to explain that it would be more a labour of love than mere work….
My mother never ceases to remind me that I am supposed to have answered, offhand: ‘Actually, I don’t!’ when asked much the same question by the Very Revd Harry Williams, the notoriously homosexual Master of Trinity, at my viva for the Cambridge entrance. (Who knew he was a friend of Aunt Marigold’s? And that my floundering inadequacies would be reported back to the family?) Whatever I really did say, I wasn’t offered a place.
I should like to point out in my defence that I was only 16 years old at the time, being somewhat precocious. And I don’t think I actually said it, I recall only making the more serious admission that I had never read anything by Jane Austen. English Literature in those days ended at T for Thackeray, regarding EM Forster and DH Lawrence as being so ultra-modern as to be beneath contempt. I hadn’t read them much either, preferring the even more outré modern Europeans, such as Sartre, Camus, Günther Grass and Herman Hesse; while Arnold Wright, the headmaster, had me figured for a vicar and plied me with incomprehensible texts by Teilhard de Chardin, Tillich and Bonhoeffer.
Why, oh why, didn’t I apply to cookery school instead?
I started learning to cook at about the same age. The food at my expensive Top 5 public-school was appalling, overcooked and served in minuscule quantities apparently based on WW11 rationing. Fortunately, there was a gas-ring in the bootroom, for thawing-out the polish, and I acquired a small pan and began heating stuff up as an alternative to an early death. At home in the holidays I had a proper kitchen to play with, where I soon invented one of my ‘chef d’oeuvres’, the crab and avocado soufflé.
Since then, I have gone on to cook all sorts of things: I don’t know where to start listing everything. Boiled eggs, éstouffade de boeuf, pear and treacle tart with almond custard*, Hungarian goulash, lamb korma, leek and potato soup, mushrooms on toast, filet mignon and chips, pan-fried duck breasts with warm rocket, kleftiko, salade Niçoise, risottos, lasagna, delicious omelettes, runny mayonnaise… bread, cakes, pastry… meringues, ices…. Where do you start? And, more importantly, finish?
Should I mention my equally adventurous casserole of chicken with fennel and banana? My steak and kidney pudding with oysters in Guinness (stolen from Rules restaurant)? My salmon and vegetable compôte poached in the microwave? My delicious salad of salami with strawberries? I’ve been cooking for almost 50 years. I know what a roux is, a déglacée sauce, a decoction, a reduction… beurres, blanches et noires. I’ve even been known to visit a supermarket once or twice.**
And in the old days, I knew quite a bit about wine. That was before the incredible deluge of wines from so many countries other than France made knowing quite a bit about wine almost impossible even for the experts. That, and not ever having enough money to buy better than a £5 bottle of Morrison’s Merlot (Chilean, I think).
True, I’ve not done much cooking lately. I’m more your one-pan-Sam nowadays. Living on your own for five years, commercial services less in demand, you learn to just chop everything up together, whatever’s in the fridge that isn’t actually mouldering, and stick it in the microwave, wrapped in clingfilm for extra tastiness, eating it straight from the dish. A can of squashed tomatoes and some grated mousetrap turn the leftovers into a tasty pasta sauce. Or heat-up ready meals: some of them aren’t bad, although you generally have to buy two to get a single serving and the rice they bulk them out with tastes like cardboard box.
I’ve even learned to shallow-fry steak or fish, and chips, together in the same pan: saves washing-up. It’s all in the timing. You pick up these little wrinkles, along with the other ones. And I spend more of my tiny budget on the minimals, faithful Hunzi and the ever-stuffing Cat, than I do on myself.
Not including the wine, of course.
*This I named Rebecca Pie, having invented it on the spur of the moment in honour of quite a plain-looking but sweet-natured young American student, who booked a room at the mansion one weekend. She had in tow an enviably gorgeous, if rather dim, young man; so that I was moved to cook a romantic dinner for two.
**Walking with Dogs just now prompted me to recall another culinary triumph, the galantine I made one Christmas in Harrow. It involved, as I recall, stuffing a turkey with a goose, the goose with a chicken and the chicken with a pheasant. All had to be completely boned-out first, and it took about six hours. A good excuse to get slowly sozzled, but it sort-of reeked of unnatural sex and, although it was good to eat, a talking-point and great to be able to carve something without bones when mildly drunk, the following year I think I made something simpler.